The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ
Phillip Pullman’s latest venture is a re-telling of The New Testament that took me under a day to read (as opposed to The New Testament).
Don’t be put off by the title-there’s plenty to enjoy whatever your belief. I, personally, have no belief, except the belief that I don’t know enough to have any kind of belief and I liked it enough to give it 7 out of 10.
Here are exactly five notable things about this book:
1. The Story:
If, like me, you were incredibly confused by the title and the blurb, allow me to clear this up. The novel is essentially a “what REALLY happened”; instead of Jesus Christ being one person, Pullman has split the character in two. We are now presented with Jesus, a strong, determined and impassioned preacher and his twin Christ. Christ is the opposite of Jesus, weak, intuitive and an overall relatively simple character who dedicates his life to documenting his brother’s activities (the finished product is implied to be the basis for The New Testament itself). Because the concept of twins as opposites isn’t exactly original, you could be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the story is this predictable. But Pullman manages to pull off a deep and complex narrative, with twists; not only twists of fate, but twists on a story which everybody in the Western world is so familiar with.
2. The Humour:
There are some real comic turns which will probably make some people scream “blasphemy” whilst shaking their fist disapprovingly and/or write an angry review on Amazon.com that will earn them a “1 out of 184 people found this helpful”. At times it actually made me LOL (God, I hate that phrase). The scene depicting the twins’ anything-but-immaculate conception springs to mind; a voice coming from Mary’s window whispers “so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips….”. Mary enquires about the gentleman caller, he claims he’s an angel sent to fertilize her, and Mary’s reaction is along the lines of “fair enough”. It’s this blatant naivety that is satirized by Pullman throughout the novel. Miracles are not really miracles, merely ingenuity and mistranslations. Pullman fully exposes the ridiculousness of these events and at times, all you can do is laugh.
3. The Simplicity:
The minimalistic style mimics that of the Bible itself. It’s an extremely quick read, and even though there’s a lot to consider, you could probably get through it in a few hours because of the wonderfully reductionist prose. This simple approach is both a blessing and a curse. Barely any characters are developed beyond your original image of them. The disciples, Mary and Joseph, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist and King Herod all appear but, apart from a few tweaks, they’re all pretty much what you’d expect. However, the character of Jesus makes a massive turn around towards the last few chapters; he decides to have a little sit down in the Garden of Gethsemane questioning the nature of faith and reason, the evils of church and state, finally concluding that God doesn’t exist. You know, those type of thoughts we all get from time to time, which often result in a SOLILOQUAY THAT GOES ON FOR TEN PAGES. My thoughts when I first read it-“1. This is very poetic and deep, but it’s going on a bit” 2. “Ohhh, THIS must be where all the character development was hiding.”
4. The Accessibility:
One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is the fact that can be appreciated by a person of any faith (unless you’re one of those crazies that Louis Theroux always does shows about, in which case the only thing you’ll appreciate is if I dedicate my life to shooting homosexuals and Bibles out of cannons). Phillip Pullman is famously atheist, so I went into the book expecting an attack on God, Christianity, miracles, praying, faith crystals, yoga, fairies and Bigfoot, especially with comments describing the book as a “rebel scripture” (The Independent). If there is an attack here, it’s on organised religion and not on faith itself- but for the most part I felt like the story was the priority, and that the true meaning is left up to the interpretation of the individual reader. I think the beauty of a novel such as this one is that, like the blurb says, it is a “story about how stories become stories”; exploring the power of individual interpretation is essentially the novel’s purpose, rather than to provide another tired comment on religion.
5. The Reviews:
I’m going to finish up on a bum note here. This book is reasonably enjoyable, quite thought provoking and most of all, superbly overrated. It is no way going to change your life or how you view the world, and it will most certainly not “want to make you put the book down and say “wow”” (Times Educational Supplement). It is not “Pullman at his very best” (Guardian)-for that you need to go and read His Dark Materials. I think because Pullman is an atheist and the book is focused on religion, providing an alternate series of events, critics have automatically seen it as an explosive and damning critique of religion and faith without bothering to really think about what’s being said.
This is a clever, mainly entertaining, sometimes philosophical read; it is by no means a divine read.
******* (That's seven stars out of ten)
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Paulo Cohelho, Richard Dawkins, anything else from The Cannongate Myth Series.